When Neil Young talks about music, people listen. They also pony up. The legendary rocker raised well over $3.6 million last week in a Kickstarter campaign promising a new kind of digital music that would sound fundamentally better than MP3s. In a way, Young is trying to replicate Dr. Dre’s success at convincing people to replace free-with-phone earbuds with a $300 set of cans. But Dre was just pitching an expensive accessory; Young is asking people to make a fundamental shift in the music habits they’ve developed since the dawn of the iPod (AAPL).
Pono Music, Young’s new venture, is the most high-profile effort yet in a wider push toward high-resolution digital audio, which audiophiles say will end the tyranny of the MP3. As of now, a number of formats promise to change our lives by blending the quality of pre-digital music with the convenience of iTunes. With its Kickstarter campaign, the company is peddling a Toblerone-shaped music player that could handle a range of hi-res formats, as well as an online music store selling them at a significant markup to MP3s. Pono players purport to be both iPod and iTunes for discriminating listeners.
Ponos is born of the idea that the consumer electronics pendulum is swinging back from convenience to quality. When the first iPod came out in 2001, it held what Apple described as “1,000 CD-quality songs.” That was never quite true. To maximize the amount of music that could be packed into that 5-gigabyte player, the iPod played compressed MP3 files, which sound somewhere between acceptable and terrible, depending on your speakers and your aural standards. After 13 years of technological development, that level of compression is no longer necessary. You can buy an iPhone with well over 10 times the capacity of the original iPod. The Pono player has a capacity of 128 Gb.
There is reason to be wary, given consumer electronics companies’ history of pushing advancements whose main virtue is to make everyone buy new gadgets. Some audio experts are skeptical that the bigger files make a huge difference. In technical terms, Pono’s Holy Grail is a world based on 24-bit, 192-kilohertz audio files. Compact discs, by contrast, play 16 bit, 44 khz files. Chris Montgomery, who works on audio and video software for Mozilla, has written that, while there are problems with digital audio, moving to 24/192 files “solves none of them.”
Hilmar Lehnert, director of audio systems engineering at Sonos, which makes Internet-connected speakers, also doubts most people will hear a big difference. Even if they can, he says, other techniques can improve the sound of digital audio. John Hamm, chief executive officer of Pono Music, dismisses such criticism out of hand, saying: “This is not a hearing test.”
The bigger challenge to Pono’s business model has little to do with bit rates or kilohertz. While most digital music companies now start from the premise that the days of buying albums are gone for good, Ponos does not. Its business is predicated on convincing people not only to buy albums but to pay more for them. Pono albums are expected to cost from $15 to $25. As of now, the company has released no information as to how it will sell individual tracks, but they will undoubtedly cost more than MP3s.
Pono can’t accommodate streaming music at all; the files are too big to stream, says Lehnert. “They would have to update the server structure and have a heart-to-heart with the network providers.” Nor will a Pono player be able to fully replace any digital music player. Hi-res audio files are so big that Pono’s player can hold only about 800 tracks, fewer than the original iPod, although it has a removable memory drive.
Hamm doesn’t believe that hi-res audio has to replace MP3s. Instead, he says, people will listen to different qualities of music at different times. “To me, it’s like wine,” he says. “There are days for a $10 bottle of wine. There are days for an $80 bottle of wine.” Even if he’s right, the problem is that most people are happy with a $10—okay, $15—bottle of wine. Of the millions of people who listen to and pay for music, audiophiles are a tiny fraction. Beats’ genius was creating a product that enhanced its customers’ existing experience. The company is building on that by creating a streaming music service. Pono wants people to go back in time, to remember how great things once were. It’s hard to go back.